Central American women risk sexual violence en route to U.S. for ‘a better life’
Memphis immigrants among those victimized
TENOSIQUE, Mexico — For five agonizing days, they’ve waited, collected in a shelter near the railroad tracks, near their path from a life they no longer can endure.
It’s Friday evening just before sunset when “La Bestia” (the Beast), the famous freight line that connects Mexico from north to south, finally approaches, its horn echoing a siren call.
In an instant, all those feelings of desperation and fear inside the shelter seem to melt; adrenaline takes control.
The dozens of Central American migrants huddled here instinctively grab their backpacks and run, racing alongside the tracks, grabbing at handles, holding on tightly until they climb aboard and onto the roof of the train. As each secures a spot, spectators — Tenosique locals and residents from a nearby shelter — cheer as if to celebrate a win by a local sports team.
Perched firmly atop now, the migrants — perhaps 100 men and a handful of women — acknowledge the encouragement, waving and smiling. Some snap photos with their cellphones, while others capture the moment on video.
But the exhilaration fades in just 42.3 miles, at the next stop in Palenque, when one of the women can’t be found.
Human-rights activists, already besieged with reports of kidnappings and sexual violence against women fleeing Central America through Mexico en route to the United States, have one more worry. They begin a search and file a police report.
“What happened to her?” they ask each other.
“Maybe she found a smuggler,” one suggests.
“I doubt it,” a shelter volunteer responds.
Palenque is a major tourist hub in the state of Chiapas but a treacherous area for migrants — especially women. Migrants disappear from this area so often the National Commission on Human Rights labels it a “dangerous zone.”
No one knows the fate of the young woman though the fear is she’s been captured and sold. Along the 1,030-mile migrant trail from the Southern Mexican border to its northern border with the U.S., women often become a commodity. Those who can’t afford to pay a smuggler, bribes to authorities or a “tax” to cartels often end up paying with their bodies or their lives.
“Many of the women who stay here (Tenosique) are traveling alone and they are single mothers. The traffickers will talk to these women along the route and offer their assistance in getting to the (U.S.-Mexico) border,” said Franciscan Priest Tomas Gonzalez, director of migrant shelter La 72. “These women are so desperate in wanting to move north that they trust these traffickers and later on they are raped or they are sold.”
Women interviewed along the route, the vast majority from Honduras, are aware yet accepting of the risk. They push ahead in search of a better life in the U.S.; “una mejor vida,” they call it.
By night, they pray.
By day, they are guided by hope and faith.
They hide their pain and deflect questions about the sexual violence.
“I have to look forward. Why remember something that was so painful,” says a teenage girl, who says she was raped in Chiapas en route to a reunion with her mother in Texas.
“Please don’t criticize us without knowing what we are risking to get there,” says Ana, a 26-year-old Honduran woman who won’t give her last name fearing reprisal. But she recounts the story of nearly being sold.
“I just want to work in peace.”
Rachel is a 27-year-old immigrant who works as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in Memphis.
An easy smile belies the pain of her own journey from El Salvador, through Mexico and, eventually, to Memphis four years ago. Never mind she wasn’t jumping trains, and could afford a smuggler and traveled by car and bus.
“I lived a very difficult situation on my way here. I don’t tell anybody. It’s painful to think about.”
Central Americans have been fleeing to the U.S. for more than a decade to escape gang violence, swelling their population to an estimated 3.1 million, roughly 50 percent more than in 2000. Their population in Tennessee has doubled to an estimated 22,564, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Though it’s not a new phenomenon, the U.S. electorate is more focused than ever on the issue. Recent reports revealed that 63,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained at the border since October, double the amount of a year ago, and reflecting an increase in violence in Central America.
But even as the political debate intensifies in Washington, in statehouses in border states and even in Tennessee, the flow of migrants continues along this route — a route described by those on it as “hell.”
It’s been four days since the last train passed through Tenosique. As more and more fleeing migrants gather in and around a shelter near the train tracks, so do tension and apprehension. An announcement earlier in the month from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto adds to migrants’ worry. Peña Nieto has vowed to stop the migration flow in Mexico, saying that his administration would halt the practice of looking the other way when migrants ride trains. Now migrants gathering here fear more than the cartels and rogue predators; they must avoid federal agents, too.
Barefooted men play soccer outside the shelter. Inside, women sit on mats, the same ones they’ve slept on overnight, and talk. Restless children fidget and cry.
“We just wait and hope,’’ says one woman, who is among the rapidly growing percentage of those migrating illegally. About 20 percent of the 400,000 Central Americans crossing through Mexico are women. Most, according to a study by the Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration, hire a smuggler to safely guide them through Mexico and into the United States.
But it’s expensive: between $6,000 and $8,000, excluding extortions and bribes.
Many in these countries don’t make that in a year. So they have only a far more dangerous option; theirs is a route of walking for days, then leapfrogging the length of Mexico from shelter to shelter aboard The Beast. It’s at these shelters during moments of relative calm that their stories of horror and hope emerge.
Ana, the single mother from Honduras, epitomizes those making the journey. By the time she leaves Honduras, she’s out of options and money. She owned a candy stand that made enough money to feed her 4-year-old son. But the local gangs extorted a “war tax” each month and fellow Hondurans who refused to pay were killed. So she fled north.
For Ana and thousands of other women who brave this route, illegal entry into Mexico is simple but extraordinarily dangerous. Instead of walking across the international bridge, migrants and those transporting illegal goods detour through thick jungle brush. The 32-mile route is populated with thieves and human traffickers.
“Everyone tells me that I’m so brave to make this trip alone but it’s not that I’m brave. I’m doing this because I can’t see my child starve.”
She’s a short, curvy woman with long, straight hair. Her skin is dark and peeling from the burns sustained from walking for days under a scorching sun — just to reach the train. She sits inside the women’s dormitory at a migrant shelter in Tenosique late one night and opens up, reluctantly, after hearing the stories of other women who’ve been abused and exploited along the trail.
Her story rings true to aid workers who say they hear similar accounts, over and over.
Ana is traveling with a group of seven men and says they were confronted by a man who demanded money. They can’t pay so she becomes the bounty.
“ ‘You’re going to pay with your body,’ the man told me,” she said. “He looked and smelled like the devil.”
Instead, Ana says she fled into the thick underbrush, alone, to survive in the elements, lost and without food or water. “I didn’t wait. I just started running.”
After more than 24 hours of wandering, she was found by another group of migrants and taken to the Tenosique shelter, suffering from heat stroke and blisters on her feet. She’s sheltered here for more than a month, afraid to continue north, hoping to get some sort of legal protection from the Mexican government so that she can travel north by bus.
“I left my country because of the violence but I also don’t want to die on my way north.”
Compared to the women traveling by train, Rachel felt safe traveling through Mexico.
Her parents mortgaged their home to pay for a smuggler for her and her brother-in-law. The initial fee of $6,000 each grew to $14,000 by the time they reached Texas. They were smuggled from Guatemala through the Mexican jungle in trucks, then on a series of buses to just beyond the border at McAllen, Texas, a common entry point for migrants who wind up in Memphis.
But a month into the journey, as her group crossed the Bravo River, she was separated from the group. She was found wandering the desert by a man, she said, and abducted.
“My body was aching from the trip, but I kneeled and started crying,” she said. “I begged him not to touch me … to just leave me alone.”
Ana’s path to the northern border, known as the Gulf Route, slices through a territory controlled by the brutal Zeta Cartel. Since separating from the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas have turned the steady stream of fleeing migrants into a revenue source. It extorts money from those traveling atop the trains and charges smugglers a “tax” for using the route. The criminal organization also kidnaps migrants and forces women into prostitution, said priest Tomas Gonzalez of La 72 shelter, one of the stops for migrants along the trail.
The alternate route, through the state of Chiapas, isn’t much better; it passes through hubs of open-market prostitution and, possibly, human trafficking. In Tapachula, for instance, finding a sex worker can be as easy as finding a restaurant.
Inside one of hundreds of bars and strip clubs, a Honduran dancer in a black strapless dress, stilettos and no makeup agrees to talk about her experiences, a conversation arranged by one of her clients. But under the watchful eye of the boss, a middle-aged Mexican woman behind the bar, she backs out of the interview.
“I do this willingly,” she says, walking toward the bar and her boss. “I needed the money.”
It’s difficult to know how many of the Central American women working in the club are working willingly or how many are being forced through trafficking. This border city and some of its surrounding towns have “tolerance zones,” where prostitution is legal. Prostitution in Tapachula has branched out of those zones to where the entire city is known as the “great brothel.”
Authorities have rescued 407 victims and arrested 241 people responsible for human trafficking statewide in the last few years. But, only 53 people have served time in prison, according to the attorney general in Chiapas.
The state has stepped up enforcement of anti-trafficking laws, but it’s not enough, says Ruben Figueroa, a human-rights activist with Movimento Migrante de MesoAmerica.
“The authorities like to brag that they’ve rescued (Central American) women from sex trafficking but the truth is that for every women who has been rescued there are thousands more,” said Figueroa. “Migrants have become merchandise.”
Some women are caught in sex-trafficking networks in Mexico while many are recruited from their home country.
That was the case for a Salvadoran mother of two who wanted to migrate to the United States but instead ended up being forced into prostitution by members of the Zetas Cartel, according to Mirna Salazar de Calles, lead prosecutor for a special human trafficking unit in El Salvador.
The woman hired a smuggler who, instead of getting her to the U.S., sold her to the Zetas. She was forced to work as a prostitute in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, just south of the border at McAllen, Texas, according to Salazar de Calles.
“They forced her to take drugs … and when she woke up this woman was tattooed. This represented that she was property of the cartel,” said Salazar de Calles.
Unlike many of the sex-trafficking cases, Salazar de Calles brought convictions for several of the men who forced the woman into prostitution.
“It is really painful to see human beings profiting from the pain of other human beings,” she said.
But most cases go unreported. Human-rights activists are so distrustful of authorities they try to intervene without government involvement.
Ademar Barilli, director of Casa del Migrante in Tecún Umán in Guatemala, said he handles cases discreetly.
“We rescued a few girls on the verge of being sold to work in bars,” said Barilli, originally from Brazil, who has worked with migrants for 25 years.
“We decided to deal with the cases quietly, contact the family so that these girls wouldn’t be in trouble. We didn’t want to make the case public.”
Rachel said she was raped in Southern Texas.
She was later reunited with her group and paid another $2,000 to be transported to Dallas. She made her way to an uncle’s home in North Carolina but was never comfortable telling her story to family members in America. Only her parents back in El Salvador know.
Instead, she chose a new life in Memphis, where she’s married and has a child.
“I’m here with my family. That’s all I want to think about. It’s the price I had to pay to be here …”